consensual and competing media hallucinations

In Neuromancer William Gibson famously described cyberspace as

A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.

In my last post I wrote about “distributed deliberation:” a recognition of the way in which our capacities for deliberation, like our capacities for cognition, rely upon our relations with our media ecology. Understanding the role information media technologies play in deliberative processes is the first step toward addressing problems like fake news and echo chambers. Of course it’s not really that simple. Yes, there are stories like this one in The New York Times about a college student in Georgia (the Russian one) and his fake news site. He’s freely acknowledging that he is producing fake news and doing it to make money. Alongside those who are indifferently but intentionally presenting false information are those who might be propagandists who also intentionally present false information but for specific political purposes. As tricky as it may or may not prove to be to identify such content, at least I think we can all agree in our desire not to be deliberately deceived. Whether or not we can agree that it is unethical to use deception to further our own political ends against either foreign or domestic political opponents is another matter.

From there the territory gets murkier. The Washington Post published a widely-shared story on fake news a few days ago. It reports on a number of events and refers to a series of sources. One of the sources is an anonymous group of “researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds” who call themselves PropOrNot. Here’s their website, which includes a list of publications they deemed to be propaganda. This article prompted a number of responses from publications and others who asserted they had been unjustly identified. Two examples are here and here.  I would suggest that you take a look at them and make up your own mind about what’s going on there. I just want to talk about one aspect of it. In one of the two articles linked above, Caitlin Johnstone describes the Post‘s interest in fake news as “their latest frantic attempt to claw power back to the neoliberal establishment.” In the other, Newton and Greenwald write,

The Post story served the agendas of many factions: those who want to believe Putin stole the election from Hillary Clinton; those who want to believe that the internet and social media are a grave menace that needs to be controlled, in contrast to the objective truth which reliable old media outlets once issued; those who want a resurrection of the Cold War. So those who saw tweets and Facebook posts promoting this Post story instantly clicked and shared and promoted the story without an iota of critical thought or examination of whether the claims were true, because they wanted the claims to be true. That behavior included countless journalists.

In short, these claims introduce what I would consider a more difficult challenge. As you know, those on the right would name the Post and the NY Times as  prime examples of liberal media (just as those on the left would look at Fox or Breitbart as conservative media). Here we have those further on the left seeing the Post and Times as centrist, neoliberal media. For what it’s worth, here’s another article (this one from the right) making the same basic claim about PropOrNot (that it’s a liberal centrist conspiracy). Let’s assume they are all correct and all news, all sources of information, are always already overdetermined by ideological commitments to the point where no information can be trusted. I would assume one couldn’t even trust oneself as you’d have to be the biggest megalomaniac ever to believe you were the one person on the planet immune to this overdetermination.

What do we do next? What we have done is pick a side and decide that it is the most true. (Or maybe one might say that even the act of picking a side is itself overdetermined.) I’d call this consensual hallucination. News and facts become tools and weapons in the political conflict that ensues. They become intertwined with analysis and polemic in such a way that it becomes very difficult to distinguish among them. The thing about such practices is that the facts employed do not need to be fabricated. One just needs to be selective about facts and then rhetorically skilled to build an argument around them. Once one sets aside the profiteering fake news hucksters and shadowy enemy state propagandists, one might still find  cynical manipulators of news production at media outlets but one also finds many people who firmly believe in the work they are producing and view themselves as ethical, even though their opponents do not see them as such. So if you look at an organization like PropOrNot, do we imagine it is a cynical operation designed to mislead readers for specific purposes or an organization genuinely attempting to identify and limit the effects of Russian propaganda? If it’s the latter, then we could still say “Well, you’re not going a very good job of it.” As far as that goes, what about The Washington Post or any of these other authors or publications?

In this situation what we have is a fundamental breakdown of institutional function. If news is fundamentally ideological, then you’d be a fool to believe it, even the news that reflects your own views, maybe especially that news. In theory, the news media, as a collective institution, is supposed to do the work for citizens of ensuring that news reporting, while always limited and open to error, is as fair and accurate as we can make it. It does that work, so we don’t have to. If you want to be really gloomy about it, you can add all the other social institutions along with it: government, law enforcement, education, corporations, religion, healthcare, etc. etc. Why believe anyone is out there doing anything other than promoting their individual interests in a free market capitalist environment devoid of any values and/or being suckered into serving someone else’s interests? Perhaps that is the case, though if so we are probably screwed.

Personally I’m not that cynical. However, we do need to rebuild these institutions. I’m not going to talk about how here in a post that is already far too long. The obvious first step though is deciding that we want to rebuild them. We need to recognize that while we will continue to disagree about many things that we would all benefit from a news media whose practices made visible their own limits and made explicit efforts to reduce bias within those limits to produce news that was as trustworthy for citizens as possible. To me that doesn’t mean inviting two or more hopelessly partisan hacks to offer dueling “spins.”